Limescale is a problem that many of us are unfortunately familiar with here in the UK, the bricked kettles, the seemingly endless scrubbing and not to mention the death of expensive equipment such as boilers. If you’re reading this you’ve likely had enough and gone straight to Google to find a solution to your problem only to find yourself bombarded with all sorts of information, some of it conflicting and some of it seemingly too good to be true.
In this article we’ll do our best to help you make some sense of the weird and wonderful world of limescale and hard water treatment by talking you through the options, including water conditioners vs water softeners, in a straightforward and concise format. If you do want to dig a little deeper there will be links to more in depth articles throughout for you to delve into.
The Water Treatment Marketplace
Before we tackle the different kinds of treatment available, it is worth looking at the marketplace as a whole. We’re going to cover what you as a customer should look out for and the different terms you’ll see used. This should help you to differentiate between the products available to you, including conditioners and softeners, and help you narrow down your focus in your search for the right product for you.
Hard Water Treatment Products
There are three main groups of products where limescale treatment is concerned. Water Softeners, Water Conditioners and Scale Inhibitors. These products all aim to tackle limescale but do so in quite different ways and to varying degrees. To make things more complex there is also plenty of variation within each of these categories as well. But don’t worry we’ll make sure these distinctions are made straightforward for you.
A water Softener is the most well known and traditional way of dealing with hard water. This tends to be the most expensive option, with a high initial cost of purchase and installation as well as ongoing running costs for topping up salt and increased water usage. Whilst there is variation in technology amongst water softeners these systems tend to operate under the same basic principle and are therefore not too different from one another.
Water Conditioners are much less well known than the aforementioned softeners, these systems come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. With often very different approaches and technologies used. Because of this price can vary quite considerably between products. These systems tend to be very low maintenance with few associated running costs
Scale Inhibitors are the final category, conditioners and inhibitors are often confused as they can appear superficially similar. These systems are compact, cheap and for the most part are designed to protect single pieces of equipment such as a boiler rather than being whole house systems such as conditioners and water softeners. The lifespan of these units can be quite short.
The key to choosing the right solution for your limescale issues is to establish what it is you’re looking for in a product and compare the different types available on key points such as performance, cost and longevity.
How do Water Softeners work?
So what are water softeners and how do they work? In brief, a water softener, also known as a salt softener, does exactly what it says on the tin. It softens hard water. It does this by removing the hard water minerals through a process called ion exchange. To go into more detail, a softener uses a resin medium seeded with salt ions (sodium and potassium). These replace the hard ions in the water (calcium and magnesium) resulting in soft water. As the salt is used up during this process it does need to be regularly replaced.
What do Water Softeners do?
First your water will be soft with all the associated benefits. No limescale, water that feels soft, lathers more effectively and may help with skin conditions. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, however. There are some downsides associated with softeners. The first is that they require regular maintenance and upkeep, the most obvious example of this being the regular purchase and replacement of salt in the system. Water softeners are also quite large and can take up a lot of space, with smaller systems taking up an under-sink cupboard. Due to the higher concentrations of salt ions in the water it is recommended that you don’t drink the softened water and have a separate untreated tap for drinking water.
How long do Water Softeners last?
A water softener will tend to last between 10-20 years, with cheaper systems having a shorter lifespan than the more expensive ones. This does of course assume that the system is being properly maintained throughout its lifecycle, forgetting to top it up or leaving it unattended for too long can reduce the longevity of a water softener.
How environmentally friendly are Water Softeners?
Water softeners are the least sustainable option on the market for two key reasons. The first being the salt that is used in the process, which deposits sodium and potassium ions into the water course when this is flushed away. For this reason water softeners are banned in some parts of the world. The second issue is the increased water usage for the regeneration process, which varies according to make and model but can still be quite wasteful even with more efficient models. These systems will, however, reduce energy costs due to their effect on limescale which is environmentally beneficial.
How much do Water Softeners cost?
Water softeners come in a range of prices, as a rule of thumb the more expensive models tend to be of higher quality and more efficient. Softeners can be between £300 on the cheaper end all the way to £1800 for premium models. Softener prices usually include the cost of fitting. There are running costs associated in all cases including: the purchase of salt, power to run the device in some cases and higher water bills due to increased water usage.
Why choose a Water Softener?
So why would you choose a water softener? If you want your surfaces completely clear and have your heart set on soft water and are willing to accept the costs an associated maintenance and the environmental downsides, as well as the expense of having a separate drinking water tap installed, then a water softener is a sensible solution. If you want a system you can fit and forget then a conditioner is a better option.
Water conditioners are not as well-known as water softeners. There are several quite different methods for conditioning water ranging from electronic, through to magnetic all the way to alloy-based solutions. Example brands include Eddy, Scaleguard, Aquabion and Halcyan.
How do Water Conditioners work?
Unlike water softeners, water conditioners do not remove minerals from the system and so do not soften the water. Instead they target the hard water minerals directly. This alters the way they behave in the system and prevents them from forming scale. Higher end conditioners will do this more effectively and for longer. Some will also offer some of the benefits of soft water, such as it feeling softer on skin and hair. There are several different methodologies in achieving these outcomes, we’ll touch on them briefly below.
Electronic: These systems run an electronic field through the pipework. As the hard water minerals pass into this field their structure and thereby their behaviour is changed.
Magnetic: These systems use magnets to create a field in the water which targets the minerals as they enter it preventing scale forming behaviour further in the system
Sacrificial Anode: These systems use a zinc based sacrificial anode as a reaction site, as the minerals collide with the anode their structure is changed altering their behaviour. Over time the anode is used up and will need replacing.
Alloy Based: These systems use blended alloys as a reaction site, the minerals collide with the alloy and their structure is altered and so is their behaviour in the system.
What do Water Conditioners do?
Just as there is variation in the methods used by water conditioners there is also variation in what they provide. There are some commonalities, however. Water conditioners will prevent new scale from forming in pipework and appliances. They are space efficient with many inline conditioner units available. All conditioners are low maintenance with some systems requiring no maintenance whatsoever. Additional costs are minimal at most, with many systems having no running costs at all.
Water conditioners do not use salt or chemicals and as such there is no need for a separate drinking tap. This is because nothing has been added or removed from the water, meaning all the healthy minerals are still there in abundance. A downside of water conditioners is that as they do not remove hard water minerals from the water there will be an easy to clean residue on surfaces where water evaporates.
Lower end systems will usually only prevent new scale from building up. Premium options (usually sacrificial anode and alloy based systems) on the other hand will prevent new scale, remove existing scale and in many cases provide water that feels softer to the skin and hair.
How long do Water Conditioners last?
Again this depends on the methodology employed. A sacrificial system such as Aquabion will last between 6-7 years, some magnetic systems can last between 10-15 years. Alloy based systems will last between 15 -20 years with the Halcyan lasting 30 years.
How environmentally friendly are Water Conditioners?
Water conditioners are the most sustainable solution on the market, having both the benefit of treating limescale, thereby reducing energy consumption whilst also being entirely passive (with several exceptions). Water conditioners can in some cases last longer than the other options making them the true fit and forget choice.
How much do Water Conditioners cost?
There is a wide range on price in the conditioner market. Cheaper systems cost around £125 and premium conditioners can cost between £450-£770. Price of installation is usually not included. Water conditioners, in most cases, have no additional running costs whatsoever.
Why choose a Water Conditioner?
If you want a sustainable, cost effective, low effort and space efficient system then a conditioner is the way forward. Depending on your preferred outcomes going for a more expensive system may suit you better. It is the more premium systems which will net you some of those additional benefits. If the residue aspect of these systems is a turn off and you’re willing to put up with the cost then you’d be better served by a water softener.
Scale inhibitors can and often are mistaken for water conditioners as they are often superficially similar. These systems are, barring exceptions, designed to protect single pieces of equipment such as boilers. They usually use catalytic or magnetic methodologies to achieve their results, with brands such as Liff and SESI being popular.
How do Scale Inhibitors Work?
Scale inhibitors often use similar methodologies to water conditioners but with more limited effects. They are not softening the water and are treating the hard water minerals to reduce scale build up instead. The most common types of inhibitor are magnetic and electronic.
What do Scale Inhibitors do?
The sole purpose of scale inhibitors is to do exactly as the name suggests, inhibit scale. These devices do not remove existing build up and simply reduce the formation of limescale in the system. Most inhibitors are solely for use with a single piece of equipment and are often a way for builders to meet building regulations. These systems generally require no maintenance whatsoever nor have any additional running costs (barring electronic systems).
How long do Scale Inhibitors last?
The lifespan of scale inhibitors tends to be shorter than most conditioners and softeners. Most have maximum lifespan of about 10 years with some lasting as little as 2 years.
How much do Scale Inhibitors cost?
Scale inhibitors are by far and away the cheapest systems on the market ranging between £20 – £50. Installation is usually not included in price.
How environmentally friendly are Scale Inhibitors?
Inhibitors are generally sustainable. But whilst these systems are entirely passive and do reduce the impact of scale on heating systems, due to their limitations they are not as sustainable as water conditioners.
Why choose a Scale Inhibitor?
If you’re on a tight budget and your aim is to protect essentials, such as your boiler then an inhibitor is the cheapest way to do this. If, however you want something longer lasting and that covers your whole house, a water softener or a water conditioner are better options.
Hopefully this has helped to explain the different solutions available to you and given you a bit more confidence in seeking out your options. It is key to make sure you know what you’re getting into with any system you decide to look into. Be clear on the main things you’re trying to accomplish in your journey to deal with your limescale issues. If your priorities are based around the feel of the water, then a water softener is your best bet. If you are looking for a sustainable option look into conditioners such as the Halcyan Water Conditioner. If you want to get stuck into some more reading please do follow some of the links throughout the article or take a look through our insights page.
If you’d like more details on Halcyan and how it works, then please click the link below for our explanation page!